But No Cigar

A hortatory exhibitionism: Filmmaker Stone turned his cameras on Castro twice.Photo: Rose Serra

If you really are Looking for Fidel (Wednesday, April 14; 8 to 9 p.m.; HBO), you will find the Maximum Leader of the Cuban Revolution no longer quite as crisp as the open collar and the epaulets on his military uniform—somehow attenuated, with inkblot eyes, liver spots, a scraggle about the iconic beard, and more of the burnt filament showing through a thinner bulb of skull. Maybe this is what happens after 45 years of gaudy bombast and lousy sugar crops. Or maybe he’s worn out from competing with Oliver Stone, the furious film director, in a smackdown of comparative auras.

First Ed Sullivan, then Allen Ginsberg, now Stone. Never mind a Bay of Pigs, a missile crisis, trade sanctions, boycotts, boatlifts, and/or the saltwater transfiguration of the Christ-like Elián Gonzalez. From the beginning, Castro has also had to fend off American popular culture with a stick. Big Ed parachuted into Havana in 1959 and paid him $10,000 to explain, between a trained dog act and Alan King, that “We’re all Catholics! How could we be communists?” Ginsberg, the angel-headed hipster, objected so strenuously to the harassment of Havana’s homosexuals in 1965 that he was arrested at dawn and deported to Prague. Stone, whose JFK managed to blame the assassination on almost everybody in the Western Hemisphere except Castro—the CIA, the Warren Commission, Bethesda pathologists, and Dallas cops—seems to have shown up for the first time two years ago, with a sheaf of queries more along the lame lines of Sullivan than the excruciations of “Howl.”

Oliver and Fidel grappled mano a mano on camera for a documentary, Comandante, that never saw the premium-cable light of day because, just before its scheduled broadcast last spring, the Cuban government executed three ferryboat hijackers and sentenced 75 journalists, librarians, and other political dissidents to terms of up to 25 years in prison. Suddenly, Stone’s softball interview looked like a whitewash. So, ducking, weaving, and twitching like John Garfield in Body and Soul and James Woods in Salvador, Stone returned for another go last May, this time with a copy of an Amnesty International report suggesting that, while Cuba had indeed been guilty of human-rights abuses, at least Guatemala and Brazil were both worse.

“I have wondered how it became necessary, even obligatory, for the left to excuse Fidel anything.”

But for Fidel, there are no “prisoners of conscience.” There are either greedy materialists lusting for consumer baubles, or enemies of the state on North American payrolls. Amnesty International is a fraud. The dissident trials were closed because they weren’t “public shows.” There can be no appeal of the verdicts because “we are in a situation of war.” (Besides, he demands of Oliver, what about detention without trial at Guantánamo Bay?) While he claims mainly to be “a spiritual leader,” he will not abandon any of his duties because “I am not willing to please Mr. Bush.” Along with Stone, we are permitted to see him, bare-chested in a medical clinic, undergoing a cardiogram. We also sit in with Stone on a roundtable discussion at which prosecutors, defense attorneys, and accused hijackers must pretend that their Maximum Leader is merely educating himself, that he couldn’t ordain an alternative reality with a flick of his bony wrist. And later, on a routine street, we will be buttonholed as he incites pedestrians to a kind of hortatory exhibitionism.

There’s more than a smidgen of such agitprop—slogans, songs, brave smiles, clenched fists, marching feet, film-snippet flashbacks—to galvanize the flabby Q&A. I guess I should say I’m surprised that it’s changed so little since I was there, in 1959 like Ed Sullivan, as a 19-year-old junior reporter trying with his high-school Spanish to track down a political prisoner, managing in the process to get many of his friends arrested. It was my first revolution. Almost ever since—never mind our own lunatic foreign policy that hugs Beijing while hating Havana—I have wondered how it became necessary, even obligatory, for the left to excuse Fidel anything: megalomania at the highest levels, informers on every city block, re-education camps for homosexuals, quarantine for aids patients, and the suicide of such revolutionary comrades as Haydée Santamaría and Osvaldo Dorticós. In the arts community, toadyism; among the journalists, self-censorship and despair; in prison or exile, Carlos Franqui, Herberto Padilla, Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

Stone is so worried about how he looks in the same room with this much-certified charisma, so anxious not to appear either stupid and hostile or spineless and sycophantic, so preoccupied with his own game face, that he never wonders about our sick, romantic need for a Third World stage set and imaginary guerrilla playmates. It occurs to me that Gabriel García Márquez had such a hard time with Simón Bolívar in The General in His Labyrinth because he is conflicted about his old friend Fidel. According to a Pete Hamill story in Esquire some years ago, an insomniac Fidel rides around Havana all night in a chauffeur-driven limo, stopping by sometimes at Gabo’s to pick up a book to read. One of these books was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which scared him witless. Shouldn’t all our leaders be required to consult such books as if they were mirrors? Certainly no genuine socialist can justify absolute personal power for four decades, like a pharaoh or a czar.

State of Play (Sundays, April 18 through May 23; 9 to 10 p.m.; BBC America), a six-hour mini-series from the Paul Abbott who also wrote Cracker and Touching Evil, is the best British political thriller since A Very British Coup and an account of the higher hugger-mugger at a major metropolitan newspaper every bit as satisfying as All the President’s Men. Besides two murder investigations, a corporate-espionage plot, a Cabinet-level cover-up, a stress test of journalistic ethics, influence-peddling, and police incompetence all as triple-twisted as a diagram of a synthetic carbon derivative, it features friendships that frazzle on an open fire, adulteries that apparently deserve each other, Oedipal conflict failing to resolve itself, gay sex causing nothing but confusion, and no behavior whatsoever that hasn’t been taped, bugged, faxed, e-mailed, walkie-talkied, and surveilled by overhead or underhanded camera.

Instead of telling you about the parliamentary energy committee or the oil-company lobbyists or the newspaper that wants to buy some radio licenses or the pregnant blonde on the subway tracks, I want to recommend instead Polly Walker, who is loved more by her journalist friend John Simm than she seems to be by her member-of-Parliament husband, David Morrissey. Walker, who played Lorna Doone before she showed up as a terrorist in Patriot Games, is the darkly gorgeous sort of British actress who always brings out the troubadour poet, the Templar knight, and the Dr. Zhivago in senior citizens like me. But Bill Nighy as the editor of the London Herald is almost as much fun to watch. And, as one of Bill’s most surprising reporters, Kelly Macdonald is such a hoot to listen to—that gnomic, erotic, Scots-Irish, sotto voce, toe-curling baby breath you may perhaps recall from Trainspotting—that you want her in concert on a compact disc. Says the copper to the reporter, in exasperation: “It’s not a story—It’s a case.” It is also somewhere else to go on Sunday night for intelligence and entertainment.

Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (Sundays, April 18 and 25; 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) is the welcome return, after a seven-year sabbatical, of Helen Mirren as Inspector Jane Tennison of the London Metropolitan Police, lately promoted to detective superintendent. Here is a professional woman who actually finds satisfaction in a job well done, instead of whining about the road not taken and the babies not burped; whose skills at interrogation convince her colleagues and team members that she can be a good cop even if she’s not an old boy; whose very intelligence is so seductive, a kind of empathetic dance, that we could almost say the brain itself is a sex organ.

Would you believe that they want to retire her? Of course, she will not go. There is the torture-murder of a young female immigrant to solve, which may or may not have to do with cigarette smuggling by a Balkan mafia. Then again, it might have to do with an underworld of illegal refugees. On the third hand, somebody in the British government seems to be protecting imported fascist thugs. In any event, against orders, Jane will leave England for Bosnia, where she discovers mass murder, multiple rape, ethnic cleansing, and the ghosts of an atrocious history.

But No Cigar